Caribbean Coral Reef Conservation Ignores Evolution

Photo via jayhem via Flickr CC

Corals in the Caribbean are struggling with everything from ocean acidification to warming water temperatures to destruction by humans. And if that weren't enough, some corals may even be struggling against people who are trying to save them. According to a new research paper, corals on the outer edges of reefs are the ones that spur creative evolutionary patterns that can help a reef adjust to the conditions created by global climate change. However, conservationists are focusing restoration efforts mainly on the centers of reefs. If we want corals to survive, some scientists say we need to move efforts to the outskirts of reefs where the evolution is happening. The National Science Foundation reports that researchers Ann Budd of the University of Iowa and John Pandolfi of the University of Queensland, Australia have found that the most innovative evolution -- that which could help a reef adapt to more acidic, warmer, more polluted oceans -- happens at the edges of a reef. Yet conservation efforts zero in on the already well-connected centers of Caribbean reefs.

"The research demonstrates that the predominance of evolutionary innovation occurs at the outlying edges of Caribbean coral species ranges, as opposed to the well-connected central part of the Caribbean," said H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research along with NSF's Division of Environmental Biology.

"Current conservation priorities are calculated on the basis of species richness, endemism [geographical uniqueness] and threats," said Budd. "However, areas ranked highly for these factors may not represent regions of maximum evolutionary potential."

That means conservationists need to expand their strategies to include the reefs at the outer edges of coral ecosystems -- and that also means the marine preserves within which corals have been able to rebound need to be expanded as well. For corals to have a fighting chance in the future, those that are forced to evolve will have to be protected just as much as those areas that are prized for being biologically diverse.

Coral reefs represent a significant source of food and income for many coastal communities, and as much as $172 billion a year could be lost along with coral reefs. So, paying attention to corals that are helping reefs adapt to future oceanic conditions is proving vital to the health of marine ecosystems.

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Tags: Conservation | Coral Reefs | Oceans | Preservation

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